Last week I created pages for PW on Twin Studies and Adoption Studies and made a few easy Harry Potter references, but I've been thinking more about nature and nurture since then. For people like me, Adoption Study finds no finer expression than the case of Kal-El aka Clark Kent aka Superman, a Kryptonian alien raised by Kansas farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent.
Superman Arrives, 1978-style
Superman is a great example of an Adoption Study because he shares his biology with his Kryptonian parents (and so he can fly, is really strong, indestructible, etc) but had his values shaped by his human parents. That's why he fights for "Truth, Justice and the American Way".
In the 1950s, Superman was straightforwardly linked to American values. But in the 1978 film, Superman's farmboy idealism is laughable to city girl Lois Lane.
One of the interesting things the TV series Smallville did with Superman was increase the difference between his Kryptonian father Jor-El and human father Jonathan Kent. In the TV show, Jor-El is unemotional and merciless but Superman/Clark learns compassion (rather than "the American way") from his human father.
The idea of adopted children inheriting great power from their biological parent but learning moral values from their adoptive parent is a popular one in legend and literature. King Arthur is the biological son of the violent and lustful King Uther Pendragon, but he is raised by the humble knight Sir Ector and his honest foster-brother Sir Kay, where he learns the humility that Uther Pendragon lacked.
Look closely. That's Sir Patrick Stewart on a horse, looking tough-as-nails. The music is Wagner - awesome!
The author T.H. White took this idea further. In The Sword In The Stone, Merlin is Arthur's tutor and lets the boy experience life as different types of animals so that the future king can learn imagination, intelligence and empathy.
Not one of my favourite Disney adaptations, but the book and its sequels are excellent
The Merlin/Arthur story was re-played in Star Wars, with Luke Skywalker as the farmboy raised by his none-more-ordinary aunt and uncle, but tutored by the wizard/Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi. Star Wars very much takes the view that biology is destiny. No matter how narrow his upbringing, nothing can stop Luke from fulfilling his biological fate to learn the ways of the Force, like his biological father before him. Except (SPOILERS)... Darth Vader is his biological father!
Still gets me, every time
Interestingly, Star Wars is a Twin Study as well as an Adoption Study. Not only is Luke concordant with his biological father in terms of being a Force-user, he is concordant with his (DZ) twin sister too.
It's not Wagner, but John Williams' emotional score lifts this scene
All of these stories propose the idea that biology is fairly amoral: it gives children powers and potential, but not values. Values have to be learned and come from upbringing and education, hence the importance of loving parents or wise teachers like Merlin or Obi-Wan Kenobi. Without these influences, Kal-El would have grown up like Zod, Arthur like Uther Pendragon, Luke like Darth Vader.
However, that's not the only way of looking at it.
The most heated debate in nature/nurture is not about princes or princesses, however. It's about sexual orientation. Is sexual preference a matter of upbringing, or are people "born that way"?
There are huge implication for deciding this one way or the other. For example, if people learn their sexual orientation from childhood experiences and how they were treated by their parents, it follows they may be able to "un-learn" it later in life. After all, if you can have therapy to help you overcome your smoking habit, why not therapy to make you straight?
On the other hand, if sexual orientation is fixed at birth, no amount of therapy will change it and will only mess you up. Moreover, since people cannot help the things they have been born with (like their sex or the colour of their skin), then it's wrong for other people to discriminate against them. This makes homophobia the same sort of thing as racism.
Examining the whole nature/nurture debate about sexuality will take another blog, but it's worth noting that Twin Studies have been used extensively here in the past. For example, Bailey & Pillard (1991) found a concordance rate of 52% for homosexuality in MZ twins, but only 22% in DZ twins. This suggests a big genetic component in sexuality, since both types of twins had been brought up the same way.
Bailey & Pillard were criticised for their small sample (59) which was recruited through the readership of gay lifestyle magazines. Twin studies involving larger samples recruited from Twin Registers in Australia and Sweden have found much lower concordance rates, closer to 11% for male MZ twins and 14% for female MZ twins.
These studies still suggest there is a genetic influence in sexuality - but it's not the only factor and upbringing and personal experiences play a large part too. Because of this, research into the biology of sexual orientation has moved on from classic Twin Studies and now focuses instead on brain imaging and epigenetics (how genetic changes happen in the womb or after birth).
The nature/nurture debate is a hot topic. It's tied in with religious beliefs and with civil rights. It's fun to explore its implications through fairy tales and superheroes, but the psychological research into it needs to be evaluated much more carefully.
Valentines Day is upon us, so it's time to think about the psychology of love. This means we must address the Elephant In The Room, the big issue that everybody has an opinion on but nobody wants to talk about...
Should Harry have married Ginny - or Hermione?
The answer is NEITHER - and here's why...
Well, we notice that, despite the recessive gene, Ron's children are redheads too. Hermione's got a very fashionable coat. But where's Ginny? Off to one side, never making eye contact with husband Harry, all the time with a bit of a pained expression on her face.
OK, so she's seeing her son off to boarding school which is a tough time for any mother. It would be odd if she were laughing and joking. But why doesn't Harry comfort her? Or at least acknowledge her? And why does she trail a dozen feet behind him, distracted and remote?
This idea isn't new. Sigmund Freud proposed that just about everything we do or feel as adults is based on our relationships with our parents in childhood, but most psychologists are a bit dubious of Freud's ideas about the unconscious mind. I'm going to go all-out on Freud on a future blog and tie in Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Kylo Ren, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Ariel from The Little Mermaid - all those characters who clearly have HUGE parent-issues.
More relevant to Potter is the English psychologist John Bowlby who liked Freud's ideas but wanted to put them on a more scientific footing. Bowlby thought that human babies had a biological need to be close to their mothers and called this need "attachment", which he defined as:
lasting psychological connectedness between human beings
Bowlby suggested that a child's first attachment forms an "internal working model" - a sort of template for all future attachments. He suggests that babies form one of three types of early attachment:
This is the Weasley family, isn't it? Mr & Mrs Weasley show affection for their children and each other and the children are openly affectionate in return. So despite what JK and Emma Watson think, Ron should be good husband-material.
It's tempting to put Draco Malfoy in this category, with his cold, demanding parents and his own sulkiness and conflicted feelings. We catch a glimpse of Draco in the "19 Years Later" scene. Things don't look happy.
This has to be Harry. His parents were killed when he was an infant. That ought to be enough by itself to wreck a child's attachment for life, according to Bowlby. Other psychologists since Bowlby have argued that a "primary caregiver" can step in to replace the mother and the child can form attachment there instead - but look who Harry gets as caregivers: the Dursleys!
Sums up the psychological damage Harry Potter suffered perfectly
Living in a cupboard under the stairs. Bullied and neglected. Openly devalued by his caregivers in favour of his step-brother.
Ladies, do not marry this guy!
Hazan & Shaver tested this out by getting participants to fill out a "Love Quiz" in a local newspaper and send in the results. A checklist helped them work out which attachment type the respondents had with their parents and the quiz itself scored romantic relationships for how closely they resembled one attachment type of another.
You can try out a version of the quiz yourself:
Hazan & Shaver found a pretty clear correlation between childhood attachment and adult relationship styles.
So ladies, if your Valentine grew up with hateful adoptive parents who made him live in a cupboard under the stairs, DO NOT MARRY THIS GUY!
And I think we can see why Ginevra Potter-née-Weasley looks so tense in "19 Years Later". Marriage to Harry Potter must be pretty bleak. If only she'd stayed with that nice Dean Thomas!
Before you go away complaining I've ruined Harry Potter forever for you, it's only fair to critique this idea.
Firstly, it seems incredible that all our adult choices - important choices that we think and agonise about and consult our friends over and everything - are really smokescreens, because everything was really decided for us when we were 6 months old. Surely, the most Bowlby's "internal working model" can do is give us a predisposition, a sort of psychological "nudge" to act a certain way in relationships.
J K Rowling seems to get this. When Harry Potter gets "sorted" in his First Year, the Sorting Hat wants to assign him (quite rightly, IMO) to Slytherin, but Harry is determined to live a different life.
Harry gripped the edges of the stool and thought, Not Slytherin, not Slytherin.
Nature versus Nurture is a theme throughout the Harry Potter series and this is a good example of nature (Harry's innate goodness, perhaps inherited from his parents) overcoming nurture (his rubbish childhood).
Harry repeats this message to his son Albus at the end of the series:
“But if it matters to you, you'll be able to choose Gryffindor over Slytherin. The Sorting Hat takes your choice into account."
It's a cheering thought to finish on: that we can choose who we want to be, the sort of relationships we want to have, no matter our childhoods. Of course, that also means that a good and happy childhood won't necessarily protect people from making bad choices. As for Harry Potter's marriage, I guess we'll find out on July 30.
My next project on PW is to post up the Biological Approach material on aggression - which means it's time to talk about the Incredible Hulk.
There's something about Ol' Greenskin that 9-year-old boys just adore and I was that kid!
Then, back in the '70s, the Hulk was on TV! That show, with it's weepy cello theme and sensitive Bill Bixby/raging Lou Ferrigno performance, put the Hulk in the public imagination for a generation.
No apologies need be made for the cheesy '70s production values, but that TV show brought a thoughtfulness to the comic strip monster - as well as Bill Bixby's wonderful line:
... don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry
But the show brought another set of ideas to its portrayal of the Hulk:
The comic had always had the cute idea that the Hulk got stronger as he got angrier. The TV show made this into the theme that the Hulk was some sort of expression of Dr Banner's inner rage - a rage that is inside all of us, but doesn't come out as a slo-mo green-skinned giant the way it does with him.
Is that true? Are we really bundles of pent-up rage waiting to explode?
This is a psychological idea that we can trace back to Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Freud proposed that all of us have violent conflicts going on inside us, in our "unconscious minds". Freud originally declared that these conflicts are based on our feelings for our parents; we experience violent love and violent hatred towards our mother and father, but we repress these feelings and deny them. When we reach adulthood, all this repressed anger comes out in strange ways. It could come out as bursts of temper but also in more disguised forms: as irrational urges, fears and phobias, nightmares, illnesses and obsessions.
After the First World War, Freud's view got even gloomier. He started speculating that there is an inbuilt destruct force in human minds. He called this force "thanatos".
No, that's THANOS. He's the bad guy from "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Avengers". But there's a link, because "thanatos" is the Ancient Greek spirit of death and super-villain "Thanos" worships death (hence the name). See what you can learn from superhero films?
So Freud thinks we all have this "thanatos" urge to destroy ourselves and, even if it didn't originally come from our messed-up feelings about our parents, our messed-up feelings about our parents have only made it worse.
But we don't just go and kill ourselves or trash civilisation, do we? No. We have ego defence mechanisms that stop us doing that. We lash out at substitutes instead. We don't even attack our parents: we have substitutes for them too.
What sort of substitutes? Well, maybe stuff like this:
Quite a range there. You've got stuff that channels aggression constructively (like working out) or destructively (like vandalism); in fun ways (like violent videos or films) and not-so-fun ways (like bitchiness). Even taking up smoking, which you know will upset your parents, is based on aggression.
Some people find Freud's ideas pretty persuasive, and if you've got a bit of a temper or you've ever found yourself in the grip of irrational urges, you may too. Is the Hulk just an allegory for the aggression in the unconscious mind?
Freud's theory is sometimes called the "hydraulic" model of personality. This is because it represents the mind as a bit like a steam cooker or a boiler. The pressure builds up and builds up. You've got to vent it, otherwise... KA-BOOM! You "Hulk out"!
Freud calls this release of pent-up aggression "catharsis" (another Greek word) and he thinks we can get it in all sorts of ways. Obviously, straightforward violent behaviour is cathartic, but most of us have defence mechanisms that stop us doing that. Physical sport is a good substitute... but just watching physical sport works too. You can get catharsis from anything that lets your aggression out, like a Boss-fight in a video game, a bitchy put-down on social media or dropping a crisp packet right next to the "NO LITTERING" sign.
That's the appeal of the Hulk solved, is it? He's a Freudian superhero. He's catharsis in-action?
The recent (2003, 2008) films and the Avengers movies have much better production values than the '70s TV show, but they haven't portrayed the Hulk quite so thoughtfully.
OK, he gets a funny scene.
What am I saying? He gets a couple of funny scenes...
You realise that, if you smile at the Hulk's violence, then that's catharsis in action inside you? Your laughter is your own aggression venting - it feels good, right?
But there is a quirky, serious moment, when Banner reveals his secret for keeping the Hulk under control:
He's always angry?
Freud would be so proud. Freud came to the conclusion that most of his patients suffered from all sorts of problems because they couldn't admit to their unconscious feelings of rage and sex and fear. He developed a technique called psychoanalysis to help patients understand their unconscious conflicts and come to terms with them. Once you acknowledge your anger, it loses its destructive power. You control it: it no longer controls you.
So maybe the recent movie-Hulks do follow on from the '70s TV-Hulk after all. As the TV intro used to say each week, Banner must
find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within him
And that way turns out to be Freudian psychology.
Hold on a moment. Not everyone buys into Freud's ideas. Other psychologists were quick to attack Freud's theory, particularly behaviourists like John B. Watson who distrusted the whole idea of an invisible, unobservable "unconscious mind". In his 1920 study of Little Albert, Watson goes out of his way to reject the idea that phobias are caused by pent-up fear of sex or death.
Albert Bandura went a step further and put the whole idea of catharsis to the test. In his Bobo Doll studies, Bandura wants to see if letting children "vent" aggression by watching an adult behave aggressively will have the effect of making them all calm and contented.
No, the opposite happens. The children get more aggressive if they watch an aggressive role model.
To be fair to the Hulk, the comic books used to take a behaviourist view too. The Hulk was always leaping off to the desert of New Mexico or the Pacific Coast forests to sit and mope. But then the US Army would come after him with some newfangled "Hulkbuster" superweapon (which never worked) and Hulk would have to start smashing.
So you see, it's also true that Hulk LEARNED to be aggressive from us puny humans rather than having aggression inside him from the start. Watson and Bandura would be so proud!
So we're back where we started. Maybe aggression comes from some "raging spirit" inside us - or maybe it's something we learn from our environment. It's probably a bit of both.
Maybe in a future blog, I should think about whether being orphaned at an early age really does tend to make billionaires want to become Batman.
Is there anybody left on the Internet who's immune to the vicious charms of honey badgers? If so, you MUST check this out:
There's no doubt that honey badgers deserve their place in the Internet's 'Gallery of Memes', but animal Houdinis have a longstanding place in the history of Psychology, because they tell us so much about learned behaviour.
Edward Thorndike (1874-1949) was the pioneering psychologist who investigated this, with those most uncooperative of research participants: cats!
Thorndike built cages for the cats which were "puzzle boxes" - they could be opened by sliding latches but to do this the cat had to do something non-obvious, like pull on a cord hanging from the top of the box. This required much trial-and-error. Thorndike then sat back and observed how the cats set about freeing themselves.
Of course, the cats scrabble around, trying to open the box, and eventually pulled the cord and released the latch by accident. However, Thorndike noticed that, each time the cat was put back in the box, it got quicker and quicker at lifting the latch and releasing itself.
Thorndike was struck by how accidental behaviour turns into deliberate behaviour through learning. He called this the "Law of Effect":
responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation
There's a temptation to conclude from this that this is what ALL learning is like: just accidents, trial-and-error and creatures sticking with a strategy that seems to work. That's how Stoffel the honey badger escapes from his pen. That's how octopodes escape from jam jars.
Yes - octopodes. Not octopi. Not octopuses. Octopodes (oct-TOP-pod-ees). Yup. You heard me. That's the correct plural of octopus and I'm using it because that's the kind of guy I am.
The psychologists who went down this road were the Behaviourists and they believed that EVERYTHING is learned behaviour and ALL behaviour is learned like this. How did you learn to walk? Speak? Brush your teeth? Win boss-fights on Halo? Write essays in History? It was all learned from scratch, by trial-and-error, according the the Law of Effect.
One person clearly taking notes was film director George A. Romero, the man who kickstarted the "Zombie Apocalypse" movie genre. In Day of the Dead (1985), Romero's zombies learn to operate simple machines through the Law of Effect. One of them, "Bub", listens to music, answers the phone, shaves and salutes. Of course, he learns to fire a gun too.
Are we any different from Bub or Thorndike's cats? This is a problem known as "Philosophical Zombies" or "P-Zombies" that asks, is there any difference between zombies that "go through the motions" of reading and talking and interacting, and us? Are we all of us just mindlessly repeating behaviours we've learned, only very complicated ones, like blogging?
I'm not convinced. When I watch Stoffel the honey badger get up to his escapes, it doesn't strike me as an animal that stumbled upon a neat trick (like opening latches), but more like a restless intelligence that is looking for solutions to a problem. That's why he digs up rocks to make a ladder: not because he did it once by accident and it happened to work out (because who accidentally digs up rocks?) but because he has successfully figured something out.
In other words, I think Cognitive Psychology is at work here, not the Learning Approach - though there's clearly a bit of learning going on, because Pammy clearly learns what to do by imitating Stoffels. But even this sort of learning - learning by imitation - involves a big dollop of cognition as well. Albert Bandura developed Social Learning Theory in this way, because it seemed to him there had to be more at work than just trial-and-error when it came to learning. He calls it Social Cognitive Theory now and has done since 1986 but no one's told the Exam Boards that so hush!
In the meantime, it's good to see honey badgers and octopodes (there, you see that? I did it again - octOPodes!) rising up to challenge cats for the title "King of the Internet Memes". If octopodes freak you out slightly and you wonder, "What if these creatures ever learned to come onto land - would the human race be doomed?" then may I introduce your nightmares to... the Mimic Octopus...!
The Psychology Wizard is Jonathan Rowe. I'm a teacher and writer, living in the Fens of Lincolnshire. It sure is flat here. I'm writing a Roman Horror Novel at the moment. Check out Tinderspark and The Thief Of Faces if you fancy a good read.